Bristol have ruled the roost in the Premiership this season but their European ventures are over. In the sunshine of the impressive Stade Chaban-Delmas, Bordeaux became the fifth French club to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup, thanks mainly to 24 points from the France fly-half Matthieu Jalibert.
After a controversial afternoon Bordeaux will meet Racing 92 who gave a masterclass in attacking rugby against Edinburgh in Paris earlier in the afternoon. Bordeaux strangled the life out of this match but will need to be sharper than this to worry Teddy Thomas and his pals.
Bordeaux’s first two tries came after decisions by the video referee, the second particularly contentious, and an interception by replacement Nans Ducuing in the final seconds put a gloss on the scoreline.
That second try as Bristol clawed themselves back into the game appeared to come after a deliberate knock-on by Bordeaux’s Australian No 8 Scott Higginbotham.
Pat Lam, Bristol’s director of rugby, said: “We saw that try and the players knew 100% that it was a knock-on. But we have to roll with these decisions. I think we started well but ultimately our discipline let us down. There is a big sense of frustration because we gifted them a lot of points and because we knew we were good enough to win.”
Callum Sheedy had taken over the Bristol captaincy from the injured Steven Luatau while a few eyebrows had been raised with the dropping of Piers O’Conor, touted as a possible England player recently, to the bench with Alapati Leiua wearing the No 12 shirt. O’Conor’s late try against Bordeaux secured Bristol’s win in the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup last year, a competition the Bears went on to win.
The rejigged Bears’ backline clicked into gear pretty quickly, though. With the strong sun behind them Bristol won a lineout and moved the ball swiftly for Charles Piutau to give Henry Purdy the chance to motor over in the corner.
Jalibert and Sheedy swapped penalties with the Scottish referee Mike Adamson quick to lay down the law. The France fly-half’s third penalty from the halfway line was a warning to Bristol not to get on the official’s wrong side.
Jalibert, so prolific during the Six Nations, put Bordeaux ahead for the first time with his fifth penalty on the stroke of half-time. Bordeaux were beginning to test the mettle of the Bristol defence and had most of the territory during the first 40 minutes with the Bears unable to give the dangerous centre Semi Radrada, once of Bordeaux, much opportunity to get into the game.
Bristol were unable to play the high-tempo game that has served them so well in the Premiership as Bordeaux’s tactical kicking pinned them back in their own half.
After the break Jalibert turned the game Bordeaux’s way when he squeezed over for their first try from a scrum close to the Bristol line. Sheedy did terrifically well to burrow under his opposite number but the video referee ruled that Jalibert was just over the line when he grounded the ball.
O’Conor came on to pep up the Bristol attack and the Bears stormed back. They won a scrum and Purdy looked to have scored another try in the corner but Romain Buros stripped the wing of the ball as he dived over the line. It was a good response to the Jalibert try, though, and Sheedy landed another penalty to narrow the Bordeaux lead.
Bristol’s discipline was still letting them down, however, and they heard the dreaded sound of Mr Adamson’s whistle again. Surprisingly, Jalibert missed the straightforward penalty, a let-off Bristol desperately needed. An opportunity beckoned for Bristol when the replacement Kane Douglas was shown a yellow card for diving into a ruck but the Bears continued to make frustrating mistakes when they worked their way into good attacking positions.
The 14 men of Bordeaux turned the ball over and went on the attack to give the replacement hooker, Joseph Dweba, the chance of a try. There appeared to be a nudge forward by Higginbotham but the video referee once again gave the home side the benefit of the doubt. It was tough on Bristol and things got worse when their replacement scrum-half, Harry Randell, was taken off after a heavy tackle.
“Harry was taken out of the game and if you don’t have a scrum-half for five minutes it makes life very difficult,” added Lam with a touch of understatement. It was a painful afternoon all round for the Bears.